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What You See Is What You Don’t Know: Thoughts upon Entering and Exiting Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Brick House


Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Brick House deliberately and evocatively disrupts easy summary and interpretation, inviting instead multiple, open-ended impressions and readings. It is, in fact, a radically open text as Lyn Hejinian defines it in “The Rejection of Closure.” A “closed text” is one where “all the elements […] are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity.” In contrast, “all the elements of [an open text] are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work.” Open texts, for Hejinian, employ various strategies, including arrangement, repetition, and disruption of form. Arrangement “invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies.” Marcom’s The Brick House evocatively uses all three of these strategies and more.

Like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Carole Maso’s Aureole, Lance Olsen’s Calendar of Regrets, and Zadie Smith’s NW, The Brick House is a fragmentary, disjunctive narrative, its dense, lyrical paragraphs arranged in such a way so that the book can be read at any point. A book of multiple beginnings, its “first” page begins with telling us what the titular house is not; the brick house “is not like any other house on the moor,” this negation echoing epigraphs from Herman Melville and Meister Eckhart, the latter of which reads: “It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within.” These negations foreshadow further narrative uncertainties within the book, and promise, affirmatively, that surfaces, containers, and containments will be penetrated throughout this text. Persons, places, and things will be defamiliarized. Even pronouns will be cast into doubt: “He is not he she not she, a notI dreams the she he I […]” (“The Neither I, Nor You, He She”). It is a book of shifting narrative registers, fluidly moving from third- to first- to second-person throughout.

The Brick House invites the reader to construct the text, to remake the text. Moreover, it provides no easy answer as regards its genre. Is the book a dream diary, a novel-in-stories, an erotic pillow book, or some amalgam of all of these? Arrangement here is rearrangement, disarrangement, and derangement; and even “estrangement” in Viktor Shklovsky’s sense, the text deliberately making “forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged” (Shklovsky, “Art as Technique).

Repetition, Hejinian asserts, is another way of “disrupt[ing] the initial apparent meaning scheme.” Marcom adroitly uses various forms of repetition throughout The Brick House. Take, for instance, this passage from “The Gyre”:

Dream of the earth. Dream of dying (which is also to live). Dream of the Sitka spruce, lighter green western hemlocks, of red cedars and a yellow. See the rare yellow wood as it burns. Dream of the forest, of animals with lungs the size of your body, and of the humpback who surfaced just as he and then you breathed in unison. Dream of the air. Dream the mystery of photosynthesis. Dream of trees and of not shaping them into futures, removing them like plastic dolls from plastic shelves. Dream of what is to come. Of laughter on the edges of things. Of holy love in the holy cunt and cock; love in all the forms. Of the interstitial lovers: the girl in the byre and the hunter who came for her. Dream of the hunter who came for her. Dream of the hunter who is now armed with rifles, submarines, trapeze bomber planes, money-filled bank accounts, and of how he forgot his name.

The anaphoric use of “Dream” here disrupts the imperative mood, making the cascade of sentences feel not like a bludgeoning series of commands but as an incantatory invitation to dissolve, to disappear, and to escape from the so-called real, toward a place where a normally terminal act—the act of dying—is, paradoxically, a way of being. We are told to dream from the whole to its parts (the forest for the trees), and from the particular to the general (the Sitka spruce and then the forest). We are encouraged to engage this oxygen-filled continuum, to imagine ourselves into the trees, energetically breaking down sunlight into energy. Here, too, are various musical repetitions within lines, each one an evocative exploration of the sonorities of language. Consider the following line: “Of holy love in the holy cunt and cock; love in all the forms.” The line, a fragment, anaphorically echoes the other lines beginning with “of” while also offering the assonance of the uh sound (“Of,” “love,” “cunt”); the doublings of particular words (“holy,” “love,” “in,” “the”); and the alliteration of “cunt” and “cock.” The section’s final paragraph continues similarly—another repetition, in other words. And many of these words, e.g., “dream,” “trees,” “cunt,” etc., recur throughout The Brick House.

And such lexical density is found throughout the text. Here’s the rest of the line from “The Neither I, Nor You, He She” section I quoted above: “[O]r dreams you wildly as if the wind winded itself across the moors, or the waves waved one hundred yards in the distance, or the wings winged, and the sun sunned its selves: trees treeing and the fires’ unstoppable fireness.” Here Marcom deftly and redolently couples nouns with verbs (“wind winded,” “waves waved,” “wings winged,” “sun sunned,” and “trees treeing), each repetition compelling us to regard the respective nouns anew, as material, yes, but also as being, as embodied figures that can act and be acted upon. “Loving repeating is one way of being” (Carole Maso, “A Novel of Thank You”).

Marcom uses other strategies toward the construction of this open text. Dispersed throughout The Brick House are engagingly sprawling comma-less passages, like the following: “blues greens and reds from America from Asia from the barges and potent refrains of progress and convenience.” Such passages foreground the materiality of words, how they can be fused, packed together, given weight, etc. The Brick House also boasts numerous neologisms in the form of compounds, hyphenated and otherwise, among them the following: “bloodpool,” “whitedark,” “uncity-electrified,” “looker-looked,” “seer-seen,” “white-light,” “stiff-jack,” “lifefullness,” “notlisten,” “sleep-breaths,” “unwithholds,” “twoly,” “untreed,” “bellyskin,” “dreamcity,” and “notreal,” the last two words arguably the more significant of the coinages. Readers of The Brick House are continually thrust into the “notreal”: a locus of uncertainty, where one’s surroundings may become unrecognizable. One character regards what he had experienced as “not real […]; it was only [his] imagination: the enchanted place, the spirit.” And in one of the “The End of the Love Affair” sections, another character “reaches an intersection and a blue street sign with white letters, but the name on it is not one she recognizes, nor is it a word in her language, and she doesn’t know how it has happened but somehow upon leaving her place of employment this evening she entered into another city (that resembles the city of her childhood) in another country and she is lost” (117). Here what you see is not only what you don’t get but what you see may become totally unrecognizable, totally unnamable, even, may actually be robbed of any legibility, textual or otherwise.

Actively engaging architecture, whether small or large, real or imagined—rooms and doors and corridors, walls and windows, houses and towers predominate—The Brick House also repeatedly communicates that such constructions are malleable, porous, and otherwise unstable, this tendency an echoing of Hejinian’s assertion that “Form is not a fixture but an activity.”

The Brick House refuses to be reduced to a single reading, a monolithic meaning, such reduction subsumed, instead, by a Barthesian writerly seduction, a stunning, confounding, and an ultimately alluring realization of Sontag’s call for an “erotics of art” in place of a mere hermeneutics. It paradoxically encourages both resistance and surrender, resistance to hierarchies of interpretation, and surrender to multiplicity, uncertainty, and wonderfully anarchic and remarkably suggestive freedom. Finally, The Brick House is a maximal excitation of ideas and things and dreams, not to mention all the elements of narrative.


Note: This essay is part of Big Other Folio: Micheline Aharonian Marcom.


  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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